Nicaragua has been in a state of turmoil since 2018. The leadership and actions of President Daniel Ortega’s regime have created an eruption of violence, civil unrest, and mass protests against the government. Defenders of human rights across the globe have strongly condemned the repressive actions of the regime.
Amid this human rights crisis, the Ortega government has adopted an explicitly anti-Catholic narrative and initiated a systematic persecution of the Catholic Church—persecution that has taken different forms over the past five years.
Perceiving the church and the general faithful as an obstacle to the consolidation of their repressive power, those in the government have orchestrated attacks against religious leaders, religious orders, and places of worship as well as Catholic institutions and universities, nonprofit organizations, and Catholic media.
Bishop Rolando Alvarez is perhaps the most well-known victim of this open and enduring persecution. As bishop of Matagalpa, he considered it his duty, in line with his religious vocation, to preach about the inviolable human dignity that each person possesses as a creature of God as well as to denounce the violations committed by the regime against God-given freedoms.
Serving in this most basic function as a leader to his flock, the bishop was quick to attract negative attention, which has culminated in full-blown persecution by the Ortega regime.
Despite being harassed and threatened several times by the government for his preaching, Alvarez continued to speak from the pulpit, adhering to his message of faith and justice.
His persecution formally commenced on Aug. 4, 2022, when police agents prevented him from leaving his residence, the Episcopal Curia of Matagalpa, to celebrate Mass at a nearby cathedral. With the bishop were other members of the Catholic Church—lay people, seminarians, and priests. While some of the lay people were allowed to leave the curia, the bishop, seminarians, priests, and a cameraman were forced to remain there for 15 days.
During the early morning hours of Aug. 19, 2022, the police forcibly entered the curia to arrest the bishop and seven other members of the Catholic Church. Alvarez was transferred to Managua, to his family residence, and placed under “house arrest” by the police.
With the ultimate aim of silencing Alvarez, the Ortega government violated his right to due process by illegally detaining him, sentencing him to prison without a public trial or allowing him to be present at the trial, and denying any transparency in the criminal proceedings against him. He has been convicted of “undermining national integrity” and “propagation of false news through information and communication technologies” and sentenced to 26 years in prison.
In a sham criminal process, the government prevented him from appointing his legal defense until late in the proceedings. Once he was able to appoint his lawyer, she was not allowed access to the case file and the government accusations.
To this day, the specific facts and charges brought against the bishop have not been confirmed—but it is likely that charges were in part based on certain lines of his homilies (sermons) preached in the liturgy of the holy Mass or other religious rites.
In the middle of his court proceedings, on Feb. 9, 2023, Alvarez was taken out of prison and transferred to the airport to be expelled from the country. The bishop was isolated from 222 political prisoners who were also going to be expelled from Nicaragua to the United States. Nicaraguan authorities did not inform him as to why he was being placed on a plane or where he would be going.
He refused to board the plane, and the next day, was convicted in court. The court has since refused an appeal following the sham trial, leaving Alvarez with no effective opportunity for legal recourse in Nicaragua. The bishop now has been held in prison for nine months, deprived of contact with legal representation.
The Nicaraguan government’s actions against Alvarez and other members and institutions of the Catholic Church are in clear violation of Nicaragua’s international human rights obligations, including the right to religious freedom and the freedom to disseminate one’s religion or beliefs.
This week, the United States Congress held a hearing to consider issuing an urgent appeal to the Nicaraguan government to release Alvarez. The hearing included the testimony of exiled Nicaraguan church members demanding the bishop’s freedom.
It is time that leaders from the U.S., and all who value fundamental freedoms, strongly condemn the Nicaraguan government’s actions and demand that it restores the basic human rights of its people, including Alvarez.
Religious freedom is a human right worthy of the highest protection. No one should be punished or imprisoned for peacefully living out his or her faith in a climate of repression. It’s time for all who are able to step in and call for an end to this undeserved and unjustified persecution.
Editor’s note: Kristina Hjelkrem serves as legal counsel for Latin America with ADF International, which has petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on the case of Nicaraguan Bishop Rolando Alvarez.
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